Saturday, March 4, 2017

Books on the nightstand: "The Unwinding"

     "Books on the night stand" is a heading for a page at the side of this blog where I sometimes write about books I'm reading.
      But times change. And I had to pause whether I could include the book I've been -- well, not "reading," certainly.  And "enjoying" doesn't fit either, it's too sobering. I suppose "listening to," since it's a book on tape, well, except it's on CD ....
    The hell with it. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer is a haunting, timely epic look at how America got where it is today. To add an extra twist, I was about to drive down to Wayne County in January to talk to the residents there about their overwhelming support for Donald Trump in advance of his inauguration. 
       Packer is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and The Unwinding his 2013 panoramic portrait of what went wrong in the United States over the past 40 years, an crumbling of social, economic, governmental, moral and intellectual bedrock that has left us unmoored and stumbling toward whatever fate -- or doom -- awaits us.  The growing partisanship, cynicism and dysfunction of politicians, their increasing domination by big money interests, the missed opportunity of the banking and real estate collapse of 2009, when the government bailed out the banks and the mortgage lenders but failed to put in controls that might prevent the next crisis. Obama comes off as colluding with the very people he should have sent to jail.
    The book is a bravura act of reportage—a factual version of John Dos Passos' 1930s classic trilogy U.S.A with a big cast of characters: Tammy Thomas, an African American factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio who becomes a social activist. Dean Price, a North Carolina truck stop owner who gets into bio-diesel. Jeff Connaughton, an ambitious aide to Joe Biden — the future vice president is portrayed as a shallow ambitious phony, one of many famous people salted throughout who, like Napoleon in War and Peace, add glitter and spice up the narrative. Names like Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Alice Waters pop up. I savored the damning portrait of Newt Gingrich, whose bare-fisted tactics hurried American decline, as well as that of new gilded age tycoon Sam Walton. I'm not sure why Raymond Carver is there, but I welcomed him too. Some I was barely familiar with, like Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire now supporting Trump.
    This is the first non-fiction book I've listened to on an audiobook, and one with so many characters poses some challenges, at least at the beginning. But I've found it also makes me eager to get into the car. The trip to Wayne County gave me a richer sense of the people supporting Trump -- not idiots, certainly, but people with limited range of interests focused on a particular set of local issues.  In one of those echoes that would look trite in fiction, the audiobook I grabbed almost randomly off the library shelf to listen on the way down also expanded and echoed what I'd find when I go there. If we learn one thing from the Right, contempt is easy. Understanding is hard, and anyone trying to figure out how we got in this mess would do themselves well to read it..
    Since audio book readers often get overlooked, I have to give props to award-winning veteran reader Bob Fass, who delivers these tales of suffering with an appealing dry evenness.
    As I was listening to the book, I also found myself thinking about how hearing a book is different than reading it. So it was more perfect timing that I happened upon The Untold Story of the Talking Book, by Matthew Rubery, (Harvard University Press: 2016) drawn by its clean and appealing cover. I've just read the introduction, but am intrigued both by the tidbits of information he assembles—Saint Augustine was dumbfounded to find his teacher, Saint Ambrose, reading silently to himself—and the larger questions Rubery raises:
     What exactly is the relationship between spoken and printed texts? How  does the experience of listening to books compare to that of reading them? What influence does a book's narrator have over its reception? What methods of close listening are appropriate to such narratives? What new formal possibilities are opened up by sound technology? 
     We think of the shifting sands of technology as being something new. But even before the public had heard Edison's phonograph, the press was speculating it might mean the death of books, or their radical transformation, as who would read the words themselves when skilled elocutionists could do it for you?
     I wrote a little about the history of audiobooks three years ago, when Audible brought out my memoir Drunkard in audio form. But I haven't gotten into The Untold Story of the Talking Book far enough to give it more of a full treatment than this. You'll have to wait for a couple weeks. In the meantime, this book actually will be resting on my nightstand.


  1. Kudos for "contempt is easy, understanding is hard." And I'm very intrigued by the book about audiobooks. I've added it to my wish list, but I'll wait for your assessment before I pull the trigger. I find that I form more of a mental picture when listening to a book, perhaps because more of my brain is available when I don't have to do the "work" of reading. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm always in motion when listening, whether walking or driving.

  2. I listen to mostly unmemorable books -- mostly mysteries -- walking in the morning. And an audio book is a great comfort on a long car trip. But for more serious stuff, I prefer a book in hand. Except, just after lunch I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over.

    "Obama comes off colluding with the very people he should have sent to jail." One wonders how he would have accomplished that. He wasn't, after all, Donald Trump.

    Tom Evans


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